Why do politicians use business jargon?

Grimacing at business buzzwords

Going forward. Leverage. Level playing field. In the business of politics, politicians increasingly use corporate buzzwords. Why, asks Sally Davies.

There was a line that stood out in Barack Obama's second inaugural address last month, but not in a carve-it-on-the-Lincoln-memorial sort of way.

Before 800,000 onlookers, the freshly anointed US President had just recited the famous passage from the American Declaration of Independence, proclaiming man's unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Then, his lips moving mesmerically on the jumbo TV screens that lined Washington's National Mall, he went on: "Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing."

Start Quote

Barack Obama

These truths have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth”

End Quote Barack Obama

The phrase "self-executing" emerged sounding peculiarly glib and corporate. It brought to mind so-called "self-executing clauses" in treaties or commercial contracts. Perhaps the term was a hangover from Obama's days as a law professor. To be fair, it echoed the reference to "self-evident" truths in the declaration itself.

But Obama's version seemed more technical, more hollowed-out of meaning. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy would have been unlikely to recognise such a slick and contemporary way of speaking.

Linguistic novelty ought to provoke suspicion when it stands in the way of precision and lucidity. Why would the president pluck an opaque phrase from the lips of lawyers and besuited executives to articulate the lofty principles on which his nation was founded? How could a truth be "self-executing", anyway?

American politicians have been salting their speech with business jargon for some time, says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based political adviser and a former member of Bill Clinton's media team. It began in earnest in the early 1980s, he reckons, when the growth of global capitalism and the waning influence of labour unions lent corporate-speak a patina of prestige.

Office-speak phrases you love to hate

"I find the phrase going forward to be more sinister than annoying"

"We are no longer allowed to use brain storm as it might have negative connotations associated with fits. We must now take idea showers"

"Let's touch base about that offline - I think it means have a private chat but I am still not sure"

"I was told I'd be living the values from now on by my employers"

"Business language became a way of seeming neutral," Sheinkopf says.

With free-market principles gaining greater acceptance on both the left and the right sides of American politics, the lexicon of business schools - "outcomes", "bottom lines" and "results" - has become a way for politicians to appear authoritative and objective. He attributes the success of this terminology among politicians to the imperative to claim the middle ground, "now that we're a personality-driven polity, rather than an ideological polity".

It's quite possible that American politics has become simultaneously more focused on personality and more ideological at the same time, as the Tea Party insurgency and its consecration of figures such as Sarah Palin would suggest.

Douglas Schoen, another high-profile US pollster, thinks business-speak is a way of papering over this widening gap between the poles of political debate.

"At times of great partisanship, politicians want to talk in non-partisan rhetoric about partisan things. They use corporate language to outline a sparkly partisan agenda."

Start Quote

Kevin Rudd

I'll reverse engineer and start at the third and move back to the first”

End Quote Kevin Rudd

But US businesses don't think as a bloc or respond to a single set of verbal cues, notes Schoen.

"The rhetoric of Democrats is much more conversant with big business. Their politicians are far more likely to talk about leadership and management," he says, terms familiar to most CEOs. "Republicans speak the language of small enterprise, about 'removing regulation' and 'streamlining decision-making'."

As the New Republic's William Galston observed the day after Obama's second inauguration, large companies have more to lose if the Republicans' political brinkmanship plays out to its conclusion. The linguistic schism makes political sense.

Despite these worrisome incursions of corporate jargon, US speechifiers have reason to hope. They are partly protected from the malignancy of business-speak by the country's tradition of speaking out in defence of its founding values, forged during the high-minded Enlightenment era. Australia and the UK, however, have not been so lucky.

Start Quote

David Cameron

We are going to be negotiating very hard for a good deal for Britain's taxpayers”

End Quote David Cameron on Europe

Recently, Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to deploy the language of truck and barter in his speech announcing a referendum on the country's membership of the European Union: "I do want a better deal for Britain, not just a better deal for Europe."

Charlie Beckett, the director of the Polis media think-tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science, chalks up the prevalence of this talk in Britain to politicians' desire to sound dynamic.

Corporate-sounding language been a feature of every administration since the prime ministership of Tony Blair, who sent his advisers to study the "messaging" tactics honed by the professional class of political and business consultants in the US. The idea is to sell government as one would sell a product, says Beckett - a project at which British spin-doctors may have to work harder, given the more demure tenor of the political conversation compared with America.

For politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, corporate terminology is also a way of ducking scrutiny by the media at a time when it is more searching and extensive than ever before. It is risk-averse language, Beckett notes. "Nowadays you can start conflicts, shift markets or have people burning down your embassies if you put a word out of place."

Business-speak helps leaders avoid firing up the public's passions or explaining policies that could prove controversial. The irony, says Beckett, is that they "are trying to play it safe, but it just reinforces the sense that they're careerists who have lost touch". By contrast, those who refuse to stoop to sanitised corporatese may cannily use their gaffes to burnish popular, straight-talking personas - as US Vice President Joe Biden and London Mayor Boris Johnson have managed to do.

Start Quote

Julia Gillard

Moving forward also means moving forward”

End Quote Julia Gillard

Australia is a special case. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet are notorious for their repetition of wonkish, managerial-sounding slogans. Her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was a career bureaucrat, and known for his use of luminous phrases like "programmatic specificity".

In part, it's the fault of "the egalitarian spirit of this place", says Don Watson, a prolific Australian critic of business jargon and speechwriter to former Prime Minister Paul Keating. "In America there's a culture of high rhetoric. In Britain, language is preserved by tradition and by the institutions of that tradition."

But in Australia, politicians are particularly loath to put on airs, and so are unafraid to reach for the prosaic language of commerce when speaking before the public.

Americans may be find some consolation in these words. But some may have huddled a little closer inside their coats, out on the Mall last Monday, as Obama invoked the need to "harness new ideas and technology" and to "empower our citizens".

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Let us know if you have heard a politician using a business buzzword. A selection of comments will be published.

Yes, it was very noticeable, the term "self-executing'. However, the term does not originate from the corporate circles. It demonstrates knowledge of political sciences. The term is defined by Richard E Neustadt in "Presidential Power" (1960) as "self-executing orders, to give them is to have them carried out. Literally, no orders care themselves out, ... but self-executing does describe the practical effect as it appeared to those who gave the orders." Prof. Neustadt uses the term to distinguish these rare type of orders from the more usual decision making where the President has to resort to mere influence to get things done.

Axel Schulte, Farnham, Surrey

Comments: I wish I could remember who to attribute it to - it was invariably a junior minister full of his own self-importance. It is the use of the phrase 'strategic planning'. The last time I looked up 'strategy' it defined it as 'a plan'. So what a planned plan means I have no idea. Does the use of strategic as a prefix imply that it is a plan suffering from its own self-importance? Who knows.

Jonathan Lewis, Bath, UK

Corporate Speak is a manner of speech which employs complicated and sometimes florid words and phrases in place of more precise, if somewhat every day, speech to give the impression of intelligence and gravitas. The irony being that the language used is often grammatically incorrect, misleading and obtuse and often gives the opposite impression.

lbrios, London, UK

Why would you ascribe this abuse of language to "business" and "corporate"? Certainly lots of business people talk this drivel, but so do politicians and sportsmen and civil servants and no doubt soldiers, firemen, nurses, waiters, journalists and so on. Do you condone its use in a business environment? Please don't encourage it by calling it "business jargon" or "the language of commerce".

James , Northampton

Having worked in offices for almost 20 years the past five have seen a significant rise the use of neologisms (sic). However, it's the misuse of one phrase already in existence that drives me to despair; "IN TERMS OF". It seems the default way to start any sentence in the workplace today is with "in terms of". People can no longer just ask "What needs to be done with this report?" or "Who's coming to lunch?". Instead it's "In terms of this report, what needs to be done?" and "In terms of lunch, who is on the guest list?"

Stu Reynolds, Cardiff

As a long-standing supporter of our heroic Plain English Campaign I'm all for simplifying beaurocratic language and impaling jargonese on the longest, sharpest stake in the forest. However, I couldn't help but smile when I read in your article: "...Linguistic novelty ought to provoke suspicion when it stands in the way of precision and lucidity..." - isn't this an example of exactly the kind of obfuscating language you're arguing against using?! Or was meant to be ironic?

Jules Hopkins, Warrington

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